Hutong are narrow streets or alleys, most commonly associated with Beijing. The origin of “hutong” is still a controversial issue. Some experts claim that it is initially appeared in the Mongolian language about 700 years ago and derives from the Mongolian word “hottog,” meaning “water well.” While others argue it comes from the word “ ” or “ ” which means habitation. A hutong is simply the passage formed by the lines of what is referred to as a “siheyuan.” Some siheyuan connect with other siheyuan, forming a block, and those blocks join with other blocks to form the whole city. During the Yuan Dynasty, such neighborhoods were fairly spacious, but over times, they have become increasingly narrow. Consequently, the word hutong is also used to refer to neighborhoods where passageways form winding, narrow mazes.
Nearly all siheyuans’ main buildings and gates face south towards the sun for optimum lighting, so the majority of hutongs run from east to west. Between the main hutongs, many tiny lanes run north and south, allowing for convenient passageways. After the end of Imperial China, when siheyuan regulations (used to reflect the social status of residents and protest feng shui) were dropped, many new hutongs – built haphazardly and with no apparent plan – began to appear on the outskirts of the city, while the original ones lost their former neat appearances. The social stratification of the residents also began to evaporate, reflecting the collapse of the Imperial system. During the period of the Republic of China (1911-1948), society was unstable, fraught with civil war and foreign invasion. Beijing deteriorated, and the conditions of hutongs worsened. Siheyuan previously owned and occupied by a single family were subdivided and shared by many households, with additions tacked on as needed and built with whatever materials were available. Following the development of Beijing as the capital of the People’s Republic, many hutongs were razed to make space for modern buildings, but some of them still stand today – 21th century witnesses of Old Beijing.